Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

State's Homestand Continues with 8:00 Tip; Weatherspoon's Return Possible Tonight

Growing pains. Just call them growing pains. Even Ben Howland has to at times remind himself of this.

Such as a stretch Monday night when his baby Bulldogs were giving effort without execution and the other team’s shooter got open. And hit. Coaching frustration had to be tempered with big-picture recognition.

“You could see how young we were,” Howland said. “This is all learning and carry-over for the future.”

That future should be fine. For now, Mississippi State must learn and grow under today’s pressures. Make that tonight’s pressures as the Bulldogs (4-2) are back on the home court hosting Oregon State (3-4).

Tipoff in Humphrey Coliseum is 8:00 for ESPNU.

Mississippi State’s current pains do include a recent home-court win as the Bulldogs outlasted Northwestern State 65-59. Their youth was definitely displayed with three freshmen and a sophomore starting. Plus, all four reserves who saw action Monday were also freshmen, either true or redshirt. And those second-year frosh were coming off injuries.

And if not for a suspension a fifth freshman would have been either starting or first off the backcourt-bench. No wonder one national analyst, KenPom.com, rates Mississippi State the least-experienced team out of all 351 Division I programs.

No wonder too Howland was happy to get a W over a lesser opponent. “Our guys hung in there,” he said.

Mississippi State is going to be a young team this winter under even the best circumstances. The age-average took a blow last weekend though when sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon injured his left wrist in the Charleston Classic. Besides taking one of the very few Dogs with real experience out of the lineup, this sidelined State’s best offensive and defensive player. Or just best player, period.

“We lost a lot of ability to put the ball in the basket without Q,” Howland said.

Initial, official reports were Weatherspoon needed surgery on the non-shooting wrist. But by Monday night Howland said his top Dog could come back this season. Now word is Weatherspoon could be playing again not later but tonight.

This alone is one reason for resumed interest in the 2017 team. Another is simply watching some talented but often tentative kids trying to figure out their own games within college-level cooperation.

One of the most gifted didn’t play Monday. Rookie guard Lamar Peters was asleep and didn’t report for pre-game, and was suspended for a second time already this season. He would have started at off-guard again; now he has to get back in Howland’s good graces. But he should be available tonight at the least.

In his absence classmate Eli Wright took advantage. He was 4-of-5 shooting for 11 points in his first college start, and more impressively had seven rebounds. For a guard-heavy lineup that board work pleased Howland greatly.

Freshman guard Tyson Carter did stick some early shots before going cold. Still his ability to hit from outside or attack the rim is producing 14.3 points over the last three games. Getting Peters, a fearless outside shooter, back in action expands backcourt offensive potential; especially as lone senior IJ Ready gives a balanced 13.7 points while distributing when he can.

Howland however does not want a team that relies on outside offense. Not even as opponents increasingly throw zone defenses at Dogs who haven’t figured out how to beat these schemes. The coach said no matter what, this team can’t settle for long shots too quickly. Plus, State was just 2-of-15 from the arc Monday anyway with the fewest made-treys since February 2015.

“We’ve got to get better at feeding the post,” Howland said. “We’re not the post-feeding team we need to be whether it’s man or zone. It’s something we talk about but it just takes time.”

Feeding soph forward Aric Holman (11.7 points on 59% shooting) is a good first step. State still needs more from the true posts. But freshmen Schnider Herard and E.J. Datcher are still a step slow on offense, particularly within zones, and a combined 7-of-17 shooting. They still have to get inside touches and force better looks in the lane.

Meanwhile freshman Mario Kegler (8.8ppg) swings from guard to forward. He had a huge late-game goal on a burst to the basket Monday, offsetting somewhat his 36% accuracy overall. “I think he’ll be fine,” Howland said. “I’m not worried about his shooting.”

Depth here is helped by walk-on Nick Singleton. And Howland is increasingly hopeful injury-redshirted transfer Xavian Stapleton will be available before New Year. The 6-6 swingman is finally practicing normally as his long recovery from two knee surgeries is nearly complete.

The Bulldogs are back on the home court Sunday afternoon at 4:00 against Georgia State before a ten-day break for final exams. And, lots more practicing. Youth must be allowed for, but growing up fast is the need now.

“We have to keep learning and keep learning quickly,” Howland said.


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